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J R Soc Med. 2001 August; 94(8): 423–424.
PMCID: PMC1281647

Old Masters: Great Artists in Old Age

Reviewed by Malcolm Bishop

Thomas Dormandy
389 pp Price £19.95 ISBN 1-85285-290-9 (h/b)
London: Hambledon & London, 2001 .

Dr Dormandy's new work is a ‘gentleman's club-table conversation’ of a book, and the topic is one the reader can imagine as having been suggested by the valere vita in the RSM's motto. In his definition of ‘old age’, Dormandy has decreed three score years and ten to include too many artists, four score too few, so seventy-five will do. His collection includes nobody dead in the past forty-five years, so there are not too many disagreements about who qualifies for ‘greatness’, and it is Eurocentric, with the inclusion of Hokusai, who provides a leitmotif quotation, emphasizing that bias rather than otherwise. In the introduction, Dormandy allows an alter ego to chip in with a footnote, and from then on, as each artist is considered, the footnotes read as if a group of friends, each with an anecdote, useful date or fact, is courteously given place in the conversation while the author directs the flow. Few readers will know all the paintings, and those who do not will not be helped visually, since only fourteen are reproduced. The absence of any illustration for Hals, an artist for whom Dormandy seems to have a soft spot, is more than compensated for by an academic spat between him and John Berger over whether Hals was a good or bad boy. It is in this way that the imagined meal and the conversation passes while the lives and works of ten artists are mulled over—Tintoretto, Hals, Chardin, Goya, David, Hokusai, Renoir, Maillol, Munch and Kandinsky. The footnotes for Goya alone people the table with a doctor to comment on his deafness, a diplomat to clarify Habsburg intrigue, the snapper-up of unconsidered trifles to tell us that the thirteenth Duchess of Alba had thirty-five Christian names, the theological historian to tell us that not until 1813 was the Inquisition abolished and its records burnt.

The mood of the book changes in the second section, for here the party moves as it were into the drawing-room, and over coffee and port settles down to discuss whether meaning can be derived from these lives. Did the artists paint to eat or live to paint; how does the work of their old age compare with their youthful production? The footnotes swell and threaten to take over, chapter 15 exhibiting something of a bell curve, with running comments going over the page until the peak where nine lines of text squeeze in above thirty-seven lines of footnotes. One would not wish, however, to be without any of them once they are treated as part of the conversation. The asides and putdowns are more whimsical, and the deeply personal in the author's views of the politics of Europe between the wars is clear. References in the text to the ‘Swan of Avon’ and the ‘Sage of Dulwich’ assume knowledge in the reader which is not necessarily there, and also show that the index is hand-made rather than a computer product, for Shakespeare and Wodehouse do appear, but not under swan or sage. The discussion is inevitably inconclusive—the sample size is small—and on the front of the dust cover Chardin at 76 looks a sleek and successful 56, while on the back Munch at 78 looks ten years older.

After this, the party disperses, and the two main sections of the book are followed by a biographical index—an example of esprit d'escalier, if the club-table analogy is to be taken to its conclusion. Perhaps also there is something of Charles Lamb's awareness (Confessions of a Drunkard) of having talked a little too much, of having been a little too brilliant, and of having excluded women and much of the world. The footnotes triumph, and become the text as a further seventeen long-lived artists are covered in this extended postscript. Käthe Kollwitz is the only woman artist to feature (died aged 78), Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) having died too young to be more than a glance. Before the book closes, all the works of art are given in alphabetical order by artist, and we are told where to find them. Seventy-three artists and 391 works are listed, which gives a good idea of how far the author and his footnotes have taken the reader, and, of course, how far the reader can take himself or herself to see the works at first hand. To the question, should this conversational omnium gatherum be on your shelves, the answer is, certainly. These lives will give weeks of pleasure.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press